Legond Marthoner Grete Waitz Dies From Cancer At 57

Waitz finishing 2nd at 1984 Olympic Games

The marathon world is still celebrating the amazing times set  at Monday’s Boston Marathon by the Kenyan men. The NY Times reported the sad news that one of the legends of the Marathon , Norway’s Grete Waitz, has succumbed to cancer  at the age of 57.  Grete Waitz was  a former world record holder in the marathon, and nine-time winner of the NY City Marathon and silver medalist in the 1984 First Olympic Woman’s Marathon at the Los Angelos Games.

Grete Waitz, the Norwegian runner who won a record nine New York City Marathons starting with her first in October 1978, died Tuesday in Oslo. She was 57.

Waitz revealed in 2005 that she had cancer, without disclosing details. Her death was confirmed by her husband, Jack Waitz.

Waitz’s nine victories in the New York race is a mark that no woman or man has duplicated. Unassuming and yet fiercely confident, she inspired runners around the world and stayed involved in the running community even as she battled cancer.

“Grete was a great champion in life as well as in sport,” said Mary Wittenberg, president of the New York Road Runners and the marathon director. “We will forever celebrate Grete in our hearts and as an inspiration and role model for women’s running.”

Waitz (pronounced vites) was a geography teacher from Norway who came to New York for the first time with her husband. She came on a whim, for a chance to explore a new city, an opportunity to run a different kind of race.

Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, thought Waitz might be a good pacesetter, since she was a world-record holder in the 3,000 meters in track. She had never run more than 16 miles in a training run. Jack, who was her coach as well as her husband, knew that she could run more.

Grete Waitz did not come to set a pace. She not only won the 1978 New York race, but also set a world best, finishing in 2 hours 32 minutes 30 seconds — two minutes faster than the previous mark.

The only problem was when Waitz crossed the finish line, nobody knew the blond woman wearing Bib No. 1173.

The world, and the city, soon found out.

“Every sport should have a true champion like Grete, a woman with such dignity and humanity and modesty,” said George Hirsch, the chairman of the New York Road Runners, and a friend of hers since 1978. “New York adopted her as one of its true heroes, but unlike so many sports champions, Grete was down to earth. She was just happy to visit, blend in, talk to people, runners who came from all over the world always went right up to her. She just had time for everybody. She symbolized what was so great about what was so great about the community of marathoners.”

When Waitz won her first New York City Marathon, women’s distance running was far from widely accepted. The women’s marathon would not be added to the Olympics until 1984. But she did so well, her winning time in 1978 would have won the men’s race as recently as 1970.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won that first women’s Olympic marathon by beating Waitz, said Waitz was her inspiration.

“I just lost a dear friend and true competitor in every sense of the word,” Benoit Samuelson said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I lost a mentor and a role model as well.

“I think what will endure forever is the fact that she was able to balance a highly competitive career with the most gracious lifestyle and character that emanated good will throughout.”

In New York, Waitz’s victories became a ritual of autumn. She was presented each of her nine Samuel Rudin trophies by the Rudin family, the original business sponsors of the marathon.

“She was an icon, one of the greatest athletes of our century,” said Bill Rudin, fighting back tears as he recalled talking to Waitz at the start of last year’s race and introducing her to Edison Pena, the rescued Chilean miner who ran in it. “She was a class act, a real lady, who came back year after year in spite of her illness. She became a part of New York, a part of our family.”

Grete Andersen was born on Oct. 1, 1953, in Oslo, and grew up running in the woods near her house with her brothers, Jan and Arild. She is survived by her brothers and her husband.

She was just 18 when she competed in the women’s 1,500-meter race at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. She was eliminated in the first round, but her career as a competitive runner and pioneering athlete was just getting started.

She set the world record at 3,000 meters in the summer of 1975, but did not make the finals of the 1,500 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Her chance at a third straight Olympics was foiled when Norway joined the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984, suffering from back spasms, she finished second to Benoit Samuelson in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon.

Waitz also won the London Marathon in 1983 and 1986. She also won the world cross country championships five times, including four straight from 1978 to 1981.

She won her last New York City Marathon title in 1988. Her most famous race in New York — which she considered her 10th victory — was the 1992 marathon, which she ran with Mr. Lebow, whose brain cancer at the time was in remission. The two crossed the finish line with their hands joined, their arms high. Lebow died in 1994.

“To me, the race of her life was the time she ran with Fred in New York,” Benoit Samuelson said. “That was a superlative effort on both of their parts.”

They finished in 5:32.34, an impossibly slow pace for a world champion marathoner, and Waitz said it was the hardest race she had ever run, and her most meaningful.

Recently, because of her health problems, Waitz sat in the pace car for the women’s race in New York. In Norway, Waitz established a foundation for cancer, Aktiv Mot Kreft, which sponsored runners in major races and supported activity centers at hospitals in Norway, much like the one in Oslo, where Waitz had received treatments.

“I am convinced you can go through a lot more when you are physically fit,” she said. “It is both physical and mental. With the athletic background, you think more on the positive side — you can do this.”

In 2006, Waitz met Lance Armstrong, the cancer survivor and cyclist who was running the New York City Marathon while on a brief retirement from cycling. Waitz said at the time that she hugged Armstrong and thanked him for all he had done for those stricken with cancer through his Livestrong Foundation.

“I was in the room when the two of them met, and it was incredible,” Rudin said. “Here were these two titans of sport relating to each other, not on a sports level but on a human level. She was asking for advice from him.”

Armstrong acknowledged Waitz’s death on his Twitter page “So sad to hear. She was a good friend and an incredible athlete.”

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